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id21 viewpoint – World Summit on the Information Society: what did it achieve for ICTs and Development? What d

Richard Heeks from the University of Manchester reflects on the 2005 World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS)

Four stories dominated WSIS:

  • financing
  • Internet
  • human rights
  • the $100 laptop.

But these threw the spotlight away from issues that will be critical to
the future direction of ICTs and development, says
Richard Heeks.

The second WSIS was
held in Tunis on 16-18 November 2005. It was a huge,
17,000-delegate, international gathering on ICTs and
development. It was also the conclusion of a long process that began well
before the previous WSIS, held in Geneva in 2003.

It can only claim
limited progress on its two official agenda items:

  • Financing
    for ICTs and development: it produced a useful report
    but not much else. Its main new financing vehicle – the Digital Solidarity Fund
    – will be only voluntary. It is unlikely to produce significant new money.
  • Internet
    governance: the summit failed to take control of core domain and file
    management from ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), a
    body strongly associated with the US government. It did agree the creation of a
    new United Nations body – the Internet Governance Forum – that will discuss
    cross-cutting issues such as Internet security. Its importance in practice,
    though, is unclear since its decisions will be non-binding.

Two other issues
muscled their way to a profile at the summit. A group of international NGOs
pushed a human rights and media agenda into the spotlight. As previously in Geneva, they were ably assisted by unsubtle
policing at events organised with local colleagues. There was also a new toy
for all to admire – the prototype of a US$100 laptop launched by Nicholas
Negroponte from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The aim is
that every child worldwide will have one.

That describes what
was present. But what was absent? I’ll highlight four things.

The IT sector

cybercafés to data entry operators to web site designers to hardware assemblers
and IT trainers. These
represent a thousand points of light in the information society; lights
increasingly seen even within poor communities. This needs a much higher
profile because it’s a direct way to create jobs, incomes and skills from ICTs.

Resources for action

Most projects
publicised at WSIS focused on inputs: putting technology in place, developing
skills, delivering information. But, of itself, this creates no basis for
development. There’s no point in giving a poor
entrepreneur information on a new market opportunity if they don’t know how to
reach that market; and no point in giving a farmer information on new
techniques if they can’t afford the fertiliser or equipment involved. Projects
must start thinking about how they resource users to turn information into
development actions.

Independent research

Almost every
exhibition stand, every presentation, every report or CD handed out was
potentially self-interested. Private firms extolling the
virtues of their technical solutions; NGOs praising the development benefits of
their ICT projects; donors congratulating themselves on their ICT programmes.
Where was the critical, independent research? It wasn’t there because no one
will fund it. And perhaps that lack of funding reflects lots of emperors who
don’t wish to be told what sort of clothes they are really wearing.

BIG new ideas

existing agendas is important. Any area of development, though, must also create
a sense of forward motion and innovation if it is to attract political
attention and funding. The $100 laptop might help but that’s too much of a
new-solution-looking-for-a-problem for my taste.

  • How
    about, instead, a major effort to see how the massive mobile telephony base can
    be used for development purposes?

  • How
    about helping extend the trade in offshoring from its
    current home – Asia – to Africa?

  • How
    about diverting outsourcing of IT from the private sector to social enterprise
    in developing countries?

  • How
    about extending fair trade from coffee and chocolate to IT?

These and no doubt
other big ideas are floating around the margins. They need to be pushed towards
the centre stage.

These criticisms are
serious. Not just for the come-and-gone summit but more importantly for the
future of ICTs and the development agenda.

But my bottom line
for the summit at least is: I hope there are similar events in future. It was a
unique, invigorating experience. And – whatever the missing elements – it was a
rare opportunity for thousands to focus on, and learn more about, that central
transformative force in development: technology.